What is the figurative language in “The Plot Against People”?

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The figurative language that Russell Banks uses in his essay “The Plot Against People” is extended personification. Personification is a literary device where the author anthropomorphizes objects or gives them human characteristics or actions.

Imbuing material items with human qualities and behaviors, Banks states as the thesis of his...

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The figurative language that Russell Banks uses in his essay “The Plot Against People” is extended personification. Personification is a literary device where the author anthropomorphizes objects or gives them human characteristics or actions.

Imbuing material items with human qualities and behaviors, Banks states as the thesis of his essay, “The goal of all inanimate objects is to resist man and ultimately to defeat him.” Throughout the essay, Banks uses extended personification to portray objects as thinking, scheming, and tricky agents that purposely stymie people in everyday life. The objects use three different strategies to frustrate people: they break down, become lost, or simply stop working over time.

With the first strategy, “any object capable of breaking down at the moment when it is most needed will do so.” An example of such an object is the automobile, which Russell describes as “cunning” and waiting to break down not at a convenient place like a well-staffed filling station, but in a busy intersection or on the highway during a family trip. Other household appliances and items of convenience and leisure—like “washing machines, garbage disposals, lawn mowers,” dryers, plumbing, televisions, and more—also conspire with automobiles in a plot against people. They “all are in league with the auto­mobile to take their turn at breaking down whenever life threatens to flow smoothly for their human enemies.”

The second strategy is for an object to get lost on purpose; it is not simply misplaced by people but with volition moves to hide from them. For example, “It is not uncommon for a pair of pliers to climb all the way from the cellar to the attic in its single-minded determination to raise its owner's blood pres­sure.” Other such items include keys that slip under mattresses and women’s purses that end up under couches. These types of objects cannot break down, so they resort to hiding. Obviously these objects can’t literally move on their own, but Russell’s personification of them portrays them as actively hiding.

The third strategy is simply to cease functioning. Examples of objects that wear out and die (i.e., no longer operate) include barometers, clocks, lighters, flashlights, and toys. What is so frustrating about these types of items is that they initially operate when new but then eventually just stop working. What Russell finds particularly insidious about this third class of items is that they lull or condition people into not really expecting them to work very long; because people don’t have high expectations for the longevity of these objects, we simply accept that these objects won’t last long. Russell portrays these objects as humans who choose to go on strike!

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